Turkey: Erdogan Prepares ‘Rally of the Century’ as Challenger Gains Poll Lead

Vladimir Smirnov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expecting “millions” to attend an event in Istanbul branded the “rally of the century,” pro-government Turkish media reported on Tuesday, as support for the longtime strongman incumbent dwindles.

Erdogan returned to the campaign trail at a rally on Sunday in the nation’s capital, Ankara, that appeared to attract thousands of people. He and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) have traditionally relied heavily on public appearances and dramatic speeches to galvanize supporters, but Erdogan canceled multiple appearances last week after falling ill abruptly on a live television broadcast. Presidential spokesmen described the president as suffering a “stomach flu” and, later, more specifically, gastroenteritis. Online observers rapidly began speculating that the 69-year-old was experiencing a much more severe health problem. Rumors, none apparently based on any evidence, ranged from a potential heart attack to poisoning after a meeting with Russian officials.

Erdogan appeared on Saturday at an aviation convention known as “Teknofest,” where he appeared alongside the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The next day, he held the Ankara rally, where he announced for the first time that Turkish forces had allegedly “neutralized” Abu Hussein al-Qurayshi, the currently lead of the Islamic State in Syria. Turkish officials would later claim that the terrorist, which had led the group since October, detonated a suicide vest to avoid capture.

Erdogan also acknowledged his illness at the rally.

“As you know I was sick recently, and from every house people were praying for me,” Erdogan said. “I am trying to be worthy of those prayers.”

Reports in pro-government Turkish media indicate that Erdogan is planning to make up lost ground by planning bigger spectacles and more rallies.

Turks will go to the polls on May 14, but Turkish citizens abroad are already engaged in the voting process, mailing in their ballots. Erdogan’s top challenger in the race is the head of the secularist opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Polls released this weekend show Kılıçdaroğlu with a narrow, two-percent lead in support over Erdogan.

Turkish presidential elections require a candidate to win by upwards of 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a run-off featuring only the top two candidates. Neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor Erdogan is breaking through that threshold in most recent polls, suggesting Turks will have to go through a second round of voting on May 28 to ultimately choose a president.

Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan newspaper, reported on Tuesday that AKP leaders had planned for a rally in Istanbul on May 7 at a smaller open venue, but switched the event to the massive Atatürk Airport Public Garden in the hopes that “millions” would show up.

“Erdoğan, who will take on the opposition bloc’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as his main rival in May 14 elections, repeatedly said he trusts the size of crowds he may able to gather,” Sabah reported, “rather than opinion polls for the outcome of elections. This is the most critical vote he faces as Erdoğan himself acknowledges.”

Those opinion polls are showing that Erdogan is not guaranteed a victory, despite years of political repression and differences among the various factions of opposition that have yet to fully resolve. The Middle Eastern news site Al-Monitor reported on Monday that one of the most recent polls published gauging support in the presidential race, by the Turkish firm TEAM, showed Erdogan attracting 44.4 percent support, while Kılıçdaroğlu received 47.4 percent support – enough to beat Erdogan in the first round, but not to avoid a runoff election.

Politico’s presidential polling shows a much narrower race: in a runoff, both candidates would receive 49 percent support.

Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech during an election rally campaign in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, April 21, 2023. Presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled to take place on May 14. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Turkish President and People’s Alliance’s presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech during an election rally campaign in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, April 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Erdogan’s support appears to be dwindling the most among young voters – who do not remember anyone else ever running the country – and urban voters that have long been lukewarm on Islamist politics. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported this week that, as a result, the CHP and its party alliance are attempting to focus on courting the youth vote and promising a future with more respect for human rights and freedom of expression.

“One survey showed only 20 percent of Turks in the 18-25 age bracket ready to vote for Erdoğan and his Islamic-rooted party in the presidential and parliamentary polls,” AFP noted.

Kılıçdaroğlu emphasized the point at an event on Tuesday.

“Everyone will respect everyone’s faith, everyone will respect everyone’s identity,” the CHP leader promised, according to coverage by the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet. “Everyone’s identity is their own honor. 85 million [people, the population of Turkey] will be respected … I promise.”

Kılıçdaroğlu has also promised the release of Turkey’s political prisoners, many arrested in the aftermath of the 2016 alleged failed coup against Erdogan, and many others behind bars on dubious charges of supporting Kurdish separatists. Kılıçdaroğlu has specifically vowed to release Selahattin Demirtaş, the former head of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) imprisoned in 2016 on allegations that he supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization.

Erdogan addressed the Demirtaş case during the Ankara rally, insisting, “as long as we are in office, neither Selo nor that child murderer can be released, they won’t be able to get out, they will serve their sentences.” The “child murderer” is a reference to the head of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, who Erdogan regularly lumps in with HDP leadership and nearly all Kurdish groups.

Kurdish opponents to the Erdogan regime, or even those feared to be opponents, continue to face severe repression in Turkey. Voice of America reported on Monday that Turkish police, in anticipation of the elections, had arrested two Kurdish journalists last week – “Sedat Yilmaz, an editor at the Mesopotamia News Agency (MA), and Dicle Muftuoglu, co-chair of the Dicle Firat Journalists Association” – as “part of an investigation,” without elaborating.

The news follows a series of nationwide raids in late April that resulted in the arrests of 110 people on vague grounds of cooperating with the PKK, many of them known to be opposing Erdogan in the Turkish presidential race.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.



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